Leshon Ima, Mother Tongue with Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin, Special To The Dayton Jewish Observer
We are blessed with two holidays this season, Purim and Pesach. For both, we drink wine to symbolize our joy.
On Purim, one is advised by the rabbis of the Talmud to drink to the point of not recognizing the difference between Haman and Mordechai (Megilah 7:2), and on Pesach we drink four cups of wine to celebrate — as tradition teaches — freedom, salvation, redemption and becoming a nation.
Yayin (wine), the intoxicating drink made out of grapes, was well known throughout the ancient world. The land of Israel was known for its superb quality of wines (Deut. 33:28).
In the Bible, yayin is mentioned 141 times, stressing both the negative consequences of overdrinking, and the positive effects of reasonable drinking.
The Psalmist, for example, declared: “Yayin yesamach lev enosh, Wine gladdens the heart of a human being (Psalms 104:15).” And the prophet Amos viewed grapes and its produce as a sign of peace and prosperity (Amos 9:13).
The origin of the Hebrew word yayin is obscure. In ancient Hebrew a ‘V’ sound at the beginning of a word was changed to a ‘Y’. Thus, the Hebrew word for wine is yayin (not vayin). In Akkadian it is inu and in Ugarit it is yn. In ancient Greek it is oinos and in ancient Latin the word is vinum. In Italian and Spanish the word for wine is vino, in French vin, in German and Yiddish wein.
These similarities lead most scholars to believe that the word originated in the regions around the Aegean Sea, Asia Minor or the Caucasus, places where grapes were grown and yayin was produced from time immemorial.
Let’s look at two rabbinic observations about the drinking of yayin. The first expression is: “nichnas yayin yatzah sod, when wine enters, a secret exits (Eyruvin 65).”
The expression is based on the numerical value of the Hebrew letters, known as Gematria. The sum total of letters in the words yayin (wine) equals 70; so does the sum total in the word sod (secret). From this it was deduced that when one drinks too much, one reveals too many secrets.
The second comment comes from the Talmud where it is written, “yesh shoteh yayin vetov lo, yesh shoteh yayin verah lo, there is one who drinks wine and feels good, another drinks wine and feels bad (Yerushalmi Maaser Shayni 55:3).”
That is to say, with some, wine agrees and with others, it does not. In short, think before you drink.
Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Bible and Hebrew at New College of Florida.
To read the complete March 2015 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.